Church Declarations of Marriage Nullity
A Statement of Policy and Procedure for the Petitioner
Diocese of Scranton
The following information is for individuals who wish to challenge the validity of his or her marriage before the Tribunal of the Diocese of Scranton. We urge you to consider the following information carefully. In initiating this process you are formally petitioning the Catholic Church to declare the marriage in question null according to its teachings and its laws. This introductory information is designed to help you understand the judicial process of determining the validity, or invalidity, of the marriage in question and to assist you in completing the preliminary paperwork in order that your petition can be accepted by the Scranton Tribunal.
Confidentiality remains highly essential in the process so that the integrity and reputation of the parties involved and the integrity of the process in its search for truth and justice may be protected. The Tribunal and its ministers are committed to confidentiality in each and every case. Cases will not be discussed nor information of any type disclosed except to those parties having lawful standing before the Court. It is our hope that you will abide in confidentiality with the same commitment to integrity, justice, and truth.
In order for a case to be accepted, the Scranton Tribunal must establish its competence according to Church law. If the wedding ceremony of the marriage in question was celebrated within the territory of the Diocese of Scranton, or if you or your former spouse resides in the Diocese of Scranton, or if the Diocese of Scranton is the place where the majority of testimony concerning the facts can be gathered, your petition will be accepted without qualification.
In view of the right of defense, the Tribunal is required by Church law to notify your former spouse. Therefore, the Respondent (your former spouse) will be notified as soon as we receive your petition and the accompanying paperwork. We will encourage his or her participation in our investigation of the case. If your former spouse chooses to participate in the proceedings, he or she will have the option of providing written or tape-recorded oral testimony. There is more about the rights of your former spouse in the following pages.
If the marriage in question is declared null by virtue of the facts in accord with the law, it will not affect the natural or civil obligations (i.e., child support, visitation rights, property settlement, alimony, etc.) created by this marriage. Moreover, according to the Catholic Church, a declaration of marriage nullity does not affect the legitimacy of any children born to this marriage. Please remember that this process is conducted exclusively for religious purposes in order to determine the validity of your former marriage (and hence, your freedom to marry) in the view of the Catholic Church.
Therefore, we encourage you to communicate with the Scranton Tribunal during the process. All contacts with regard to your case should be made in writing in order to safeguard confidentiality and to provide a written record for your file.
The Result of this Process
We hope that the result of this process will be a healing experience for you. For some people, this can be a healing of memories or simply peace of mind. For a divorced and remarried Catholic, a declaration of marriage nullity will allow you to resume a full sacramental life in the Church. For a non-Catholic, a declaration of marriage nullity will enable your present or intended spouse to validate your marriage by his or her Church. With regard to any previous marriage, a non-Catholic should be aware that the Catholic Church presumes that any marriage entered into by a man and woman is valid until the contrary can be proven. Therefore, a subsequent marriage cannot be recognized by the Catholic Church until any former marriage has been declared null.
The potential benefits of a successful outcome of this process should not cause you to overlook certain realities, however. Essentially a declaration of marriage nullity requires the demonstration of certain facts which prove the invalidity of marital consent according to teachings and laws of the Catholic Church. The process for declaring a marriage invalid seeks to discover whether there is evidence of some ground of nullity upon which the invalidity of marital consent rests. This process, therefore, involves the search for and demonstration of the truth. An affirmative decision indicates that a person’s petition for a declaration of nullity has been proven according to the laws and teachings of the Catholic Church; a negative decision would indicate that the petition was not able to be established to the satisfaction of the judges.
The Rights of the Parties
The declaration of marriage nullity process is governed by specific laws of the Church which protect various rights of the parties, the Church, and the Sacrament of Marriage. The Petitioner and Respondent may choose to appoint an Advocate to assist in the process. The Tribunal is under a most serious obligation to ensure and protect the following rights of your former spouse:
- To be notified about your request for a declaration of marriage nullity;
- To be allowed to participate by giving testimony and/or offering the names of witnesses;
- To know the basis for your petition, the names of your witnesses, and the grounds on which the nullity of the marriage will be alleged;
- To know the content of the case by reading the testimony at a Tribunal office;
- To challenge or refute your testimony or that of the witnesses;
- To know the content of and reasons for the decision.
- To challenge the decision by a Complaint of Nullity of the Sentence or an appeal to a higher Church tribunal.
It should be noted that, as the Petitioner, you have rights similar to the above. Therefore, know that the information provide to us by either party or their witnesses may be accessible to the Petitioner and Respondent, if they so choose and if the Tribunal concurs.
Special Situations Concerning Your Former Spouse
If the Respondent is not willing to cooperate or simply ignores the letter or notification, the proceedings will continue. If the whereabouts of the Respondent is genuinely unknown, the case can continue. However, documentation will be required to demonstrate that his or her location is truly unknown. In this regard, you must provide us with the requested information on the “Your Efforts to Locate Your Former Spouse” form in the initial paperwork.
If the Respondent was violent or abusive, this must be fully documented by court records, police reports, sworn testimony, etc. Even in such situations, however, the law of the Church views the Respondent’s “right of defense” as one which must be taken seriously because it is a natural right. Consequently, our failure to notify a Respondent could result in the reversal of an affirmative decision by a higher Church tribunal.
If you cannot agree with the requirement of canon law that we notify your former spouse, it may not be possible for you to pursue the resolution of your marital situation with the Scranton Tribunal, at least not at this time. If you are concerned about the notification of your former spouse, it will be best to discuss this directly with the Scranton Tribunal.
An ancient principal, evident even in the scriptures, states that two witnesses are required in any question or dispute brought before the church community. Anyone who has known you well during the courtship and at the time of your marrying can serve as a witness. It is most helpful if the person knew your former spouse at the time of courtship and marrying as well. The best witnesses are those who have known you both since your courtship. Usually, parents, brothers or sisters, or other relatives make good witnesses. We prefer, however, that you not involve your children in the proceedings.
At times, there may be someone you presume would not be an acceptable or knowledgeable witness. Certainly there are some things about a marriage that no one would know about except the former spouse. Nevertheless, please allow us to evaluate the suitability of a witness. It is not always necessary that someone know the intimate details of your life: that they have known you well and were at least acquainted with your former spouse is often more than enough.
The witnesses whose names and addresses you provide will be sent a questionnaire similar to (but shorter than) the one you have completed. You should encourage a prompt response. Many cases are significantly delayed because of witness problems. In some cases, the Scranton Tribunal many want your witnesses interviewed.
The Scranton Tribunal functions as the official judicial forum by which a person can resolve a problem or regularize his or her status in the Church. This is considered to be the external forum: it is a public, official, and juridical way to address certain situations in the Church. In terms of the divorced, it is the public, external and juridical way that a person can have a subsequent marriage validated by the Catholic Church. Therefore, there are certain features which make this a “public” process.
Nevertheless, any information gathered by the Scranton Tribunal is for the exclusive use of the Catholic Church in determining the validity of a marriage according to its teachings and laws. Because such information is personal and sensitive, the Church is concerned that no one is harmed in any way as a result of this process. Therefore, the Scranton Tribunal may request an oath of secrecy from the parties in the case in order to protect a person’s privacy, good name or reputation. Such an assurance of confidentiality from the parties is also necessary in order that the Church may conduct its internal affairs freely in our society.
Be assured, however, that only those persons who have lawful standing before the Court have access to this information. Obviously, in the first place, this right applies to the parties themselves (you and your former spouse). The need to know applies to the officials and employees of the Tribunal who are bound by a strict obligation of secrecy. Others who may need to be informed about the details of a case are officers of other Church tribunals or professionals whom we engage for their expert opinion.
Often, after a decree of nullity is issued, certain issues need further clarification before permission to marry will be given by the Church. In those situations, a professional counselor will need to be informed about the background of those areas needing clarification.
Bishop Joseph Bambera has decided that there will be no fees associated with any process associated with the nullity of marriage in the Diocese of Scranton. That being said, the policy of Bishop Bambera and the Diocese of Scranton does not prevent fees being incurred in other tribunals.
The Release of Counseling Records
Often the professional opinion of a counselor helps the Scranton Tribunal in understanding the problems within your former marriage. Any information provided to the Scranton Tribunal by a counselor is confidential. You must authorize the release of such information. It is understood that any report you release from a counselor or agency will be for the exclusive use of the Tribunal.
If you engaged the services of a professional for individual or marital counseling, we ask that you request the counselor or agency to provide the Scranton Tribunal with a report. To make such a request, please read carefully and complete fully the “Professional or Expert Witnesses” form provided in your initial paperwork. The Scranton Tribunal will ask you to sign a release and will send the release to the appropriate address. If you were counseled by more than one professional, you must complete a release for each one.
Length of the Process
When you complete the petition information and submit it with the required evidentiary documents, you are beginning a process which naturally takes time to evolve with due regard for justice for all the parties. Ideally, the Code of Canon Law asks that such cases at the diocesan level be finished in twelve months. With the availability of qualified personnel to work in the Scranton Tribunal, we hope to come to a decision in these cases well within the time frame established by Canon Law.
However, some cases are delayed by insufficient information or by a lack of cooperation from the Petitioner, the Respondent or witnesses. Therefore, you should present the preliminary information as thoroughly as possible. It would be advisable to speak to your witnesses beforehand and obtain their assurance that they will respond promptly. The longest delays in a case often arise when witnesses do not respond.
Preparing for Another Marriage
In evaluating the testimony in a marriage case, the Scranton Tribunal often learns a great deal about the parties and their marriage. In most cases, some of this information can be used to help the parties prepare more thoroughly or realistically for a future marriage. Moreover, there may be some questions about what led to the problems in the former marriage.
The Church is very concerned that a future marriage be as happy and healthy as possible. In many cases, special marriage preparation will be required for you and an intended spouse before another marriage will be permitted in the Church. Such special preparation can include one of the following requirements:
- Informing the priest or deacon preparing a future marriage about specific pastoral questions or concerns to be discussed with you and an intended spouse;
- A series of three sessions with a marriage and family therapist at a local office of Catholic Social Services to discuss specific concerns or questions and to evaluate the future marriage.
- Referral to a qualified professional (i.e., an alcohol or drug counselor, psychologist, other mental health professional) to assess and/or discuss certain specific areas of concern.
Any of these types of referrals following a declaration of nullity are meant not as a penalty but as a help to you and your future spouse. Often many couples see such an experience as a benefit to their marriage. In the event that the second or third possibility is required, it is understood that you will be responsible for the professional fees involved.
Because a declaration of nullity involved a legal process which resolved the question of your marital status in the Catholic Church, it must be completed definitively (one way or the other) before you can begin to prepare for another marriage in the Church. To avoid confusion, anger, embarrassment and hurt, no date can be set for another marriage (or for the validation of an existing marriage) before a final and favorable decision is rendered in your case. If you are a catechumen or a candidate for reception into full communion with the Church, your baptism or reception into the Church may also be delayed until your marital status is clarified. If you have questions about this, please speak to your parish priest.
Since the Church mourns the loss and pain which accompany any divorce, and hopes to avoid questions and any possible scandal, your future marriage should be celebrated simply and with little or no publicity.
The Tribunal as a Ministry of Service
The Scranton Tribunal exists to help people participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. Within the limits set by the Church’s law, we will do all that we can to assist you. The information detailed above is designed to be clear about what is necessary for you to present a well-founded petition for a declaration of nullity to the Tribunal.
If you need further information, you may wish to speak to your parish priest. However, please do not hesitate to contact the Scranton Tribunal directly with any specific questions you may have about the process or its requirements. You may refer further inquiries to:
Coordinator of the Tribunal
300 Wyoming Avenue
Scranton, PA 18503-1279